Back to Portugal, 50 Years Later

They made a life in Venezuela, fleeing poverty and dictatorship in Portugal. Now they are returning to the country they were born in, to survive as they can, with a half-forgotten language, at 70 or 80 years old.

Photos by author. 

The first migrants left through the Maiquetía Airport. They were the most qualified professionals, and they started the flight of the demographic bonus: the optimal stratum of people in productive age. Then, the rest followed on buses, boats and on foot. But the Venezuelan exodus, which grows like a landslide of human dramas, now has another slower, more desperate wave: the elderly and retirees, who flee against the clock.

In the 1960s, according to figures from the National Statistics Institute, about 15% of the population in Venezuela were immigrants, mainly from Spain, Portugal, Italy, with also people of Lebanese, Syrian and Jewish origin. Today, many displaced citizens are children and grandchildren of those foreigners, increasing the proportion of senior citizens within Venezuela, people who can only survive on the remittances they receive.

In the 1960s, about 15% of the population in Venezuela were immigrants, mainly from Spain, Portugal, Italy, with also people of Lebanese, Syrian and Jewish origin.

However, some of them are also leaving. Perhaps the most visible faces are the Portuguese who arrived in Venezuela in the second half of the past century, and who are now fleeing the country due to the humanitarian crisis, an emergency that doesn’t discriminate and hits the elderly the hardest. The exodus of citizens as old as 80 raises alarms in the international community: between 2016 and 2018, the Venezuelan population in Spain practically tripled, going from 54,401 to 137,589 people, according to the last report of the Spanish Statistics Institute. Indeed, the countries whose citizens migrated to Venezuela before, during and after World War II in Europe, are being particularly affected: Italy, Spain and Portugal.

This is a group who had businesses and properties in Venezuela, who lived there for over 50 years, had children and grandchildren in the glory days of the oil boom, and consider the Caribbean country as their true place of origin.

O retornado

João Felipe Gómes had to leave everything behind to start anew in his native island of Madeira, with his heart affected by volatile arterial pressure.

He used to head a canned food factory in Barquisimeto, and later started a liquor store. Then he left the family business to his children, so he could rest in his senior years. In 2018, he decided to take perhaps his last leap: going back to Madeira at 80, without memory of the place, without fluency in the language, after 50 years living in Venezuela: “I had many friends in Venezuela. I went out to the street and shared and talked with everyone. I’m not Portuguese here, they call me ‘The Returned.’ People treat me like a stranger and nobody understands when I speak.”

His language problems have caused mockery and confusion, so now he spends lots of time watching TV.

He arrived with nothing, just like that first time he left Portugal, in 1964, wishing to see his second country renewed. After all, that’s where João had properties, love and a name, “El Portu.” In Venezuela, he couldn’t find pills for his blood pressure or his sleep medication. He didn’t have peace, so the decision was irreversible, imminent: he had to return to that land he left when he was 26.

In Madeira, everyone has medicines but he misses the Sundays of fun, people’s warmth and the mid-afternoon joke. Recently, the doctor had to change his antidepressant, because now the sadness seems to have seeped into his flesh. It’s the grief of leaving everything behind. João, just like many returned, was never listed in Portugal’s social security system, so his access to a pension is unlikely.

In his case, the Portuguese state only offers access to a senior pension for 228 euros, hardly enough to overcome the financial chokehold, but a relief indeed for those who arrive sick, without savings. The subsidy is a little over a third of the minimum wage, 600 euros in Portugal, half of what the French and German citizens earn monthly.

Currently, 20% of the Portuguese population, 2.2 million people, are over 65 years old. By 2080, this number will be 40%, according to the Portuguese Statistics Institute. By 2017, almost a million senior citizens were isolated and some spent more than eight hours alone, according to a census carried out by the Republican National Guard. In a nation with serious aging problems, the government’s capacity to give pensions is increasingly smaller and requestors must sometimes wait for the benefit for years.

“The elderly suffer from isolation, discrimination and psychosocial and emotional deprivation,” says Juan Manuel Correia, a migration specialist and professor at Simón Bolívar University. “Moreover, those who migrate don’t have the support of a family to carry out the official operations and they’re even excluded from their communities.”

From businesswoman to cleaning lady

Alexadrina Gonçalves Marques moved from El Marqués, Caracas, to Póvoa de Varzim, a city in Northern Portugal, 24 km from Porto, where she was born. At 70 and with her health threatened by diabetes and fibromyalgia, she left her accounting firm, ten employees, her home and vehicle to go stay with an aunt. Alexandrina was losing close to 2 kg a month, and looked increasingly famished.

But moving to Portugal wasn’t the only way her life changed. After being an accountant for 45 years, she had to compete in a narrow employment market, where she made her way as a cleaning lady.

“The first time I took a broom, I started laughing. I was an accountant for three casinos in Venezuela, the Majestic in La Urbina, the Fortuna in El Marqués and the Granos de Aventura in Guarenas-Guatire. And now I must clean one in Portugal. I took it well, I didn’t see it as something bad, that was my job in a maintenance company. Then I worked in construction for a month, cleaning Mercadona warehouses. I got home exhausted at 6:30 p.m.”

Currently, 20% of the Portuguese population, 2.2 million people, are over 65 years old.

At 70, Alexandrina couldn’t take her shoes off the ground, so she dragged her feet across a huge warehouse to do her work. She wore a helmet, two pairs of gloves and a mouth cover to prevent dust from entering her lungs.

“I graduated as a public accountant from the Central University of Venezuela in 1975. I’ve always been cheerful and talkative and I had hopes for the future.”

Her biggest disappointment was when she looked all over Caracas and couldn’t find any of the four medicines she needed. “Back then, one of my nieces, who lives in Atlanta, called me and went, ‘Aunt, if I don’t take you out of there, you’re going to die.’ I lived in the United States for three months, until I arrived in Portugal, on January 23rd, 2018.”

A year and four months later, she hasn’t secured a pension. She managed to get reinstated in the system, but she only gets a token of 186 euros a month. Today, she splits her time between her jobs and caring for her 80-year-old aunt, who suffers from senile dementia.

Pulmonologist Antonio Quintal, with over 32 years of medical experience, has suffered first hand the difficulties that returned professionals, especially the elderly, face in order to work in Portugal, since his arrival in 2017. The obstacles have forced Venezuelan-Portuguese doctors to work in countries like Spain, where Quintal will travel soon to find a job as a general doctor. He refuses to renounce the Hippocratic Oath: “Being a doctor in Venezuela is like being at war.”

65-year-old Plácido Baptista returned to Madeira after 42 years in Venezuela, where he was a taxi driver. Now he’s been forced to take up his original trade, weaving baskets. When he arrived, he had to sign up in the Employment Institute and pass examinations in a job he’d been doing for over 35 years, because before being a taxi driver, he worked for decades weaving wicker chairs.

He speaks of Venezuela with nostalgia. Although he doesn’t miss being shut in all day due to crime, this artisan, now living in a rented house, clearly misses his old life: “I love that country and I’d like to return, if things get better. My home is there.”